Vampire friends who are currently reading this post, beware! If there is one place on Earth you’d better avoid, this is the one. Neither because it is located atop a hill and that sunbeams can reach it easily, nor is it an area covered in garlic crops. But at the top of Lithuania’s Hill of Crosses, you would find more than 100,000 causes to die on the spot.
The locals call it Kryžių kalnas. Located about 12 kilometers north from Šiauliai, Lithuania’s fourth largest city, this place is considered nowadays a major pilgrimage spot. Over the years, pilgrims, visitors and curious minds have checked out the Hill and sometimes left behind a crucifix, a religious relic, statue, painting, or any other faith-related item that would find a home at the Hill of Crosses.
But beyond the traditional pilgrimage spots that one may find all across Europe, this one also mirrors the country’s history and the Hill has been, through hard times, a haven for hope-seekers and prayer-sayers. Let’s jump back in time to understand what makes it so special to Lithuanians.
The Eastern European country has indeed experienced various stages in the course of its history; as early as the 18th century, both Prussia and Russia started gaining on Lithuania’s territories on both sides. The sandwiched country would be put under Russian rule (featuring censorship and ‘cultural imperialism’) and revolts were violently suppressed.
When WW1 broke out, Germans interfered and pushed Lithuania towards independence – even though this move aimed at creating a satellite state, it was achieved in 1918. Following German occupation, came the Soviets: both sides forced the country to differ from its WW2-neutral stand, and Lithuania became part of the Soviet Union in 1940. It would take half a century (and the fall of the USSR) for the East-European country to regain its independent status, although with fragile economic, social and political health.
In this context where invaders and powerful troublemakers chased one another, the Hill of Crosses could be considered a shelter from foreign influence as well as a bastion of Lithuanian independence, resistance and cultural identity. From 130 in 1900, the number of crosses atop Kryžių kalnas rose to 400 four decades later. Accounting for the site’s success in keeping the locals’ spirits up, the Russians demolished it at least three times and put a lot of effort into removing the crosses, which still amounted to some 55,000 at the turn of the 21st century. Nowadays this figure has doubled up, and among the Hill of Crosses’ recent donations, even one made out of Lego can be found.
Considering the time and the efforts made towards achieving peace and freedom of mind in Lithuania, following numerous centuries of oppression, the expression ‘Way of the Cross’ finds a perfect illustration here.
- Joshua Foer, Dylan Thuras, Ella Morton, Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the Worlds’s Hidden Wonders (2016), p. 98